India’s navy set up a search zone for the missing Malaysian airliner in the Andaman Sea, hundreds of miles off the course of Flight 370, as evidence mounted that the plane kept flying after controllers lost contact.
The new search, spurred by a tip from Malaysia (MAS)’s navy, covers 35,000 square kilometers (13,514 square miles) off the northern tip of Sumatra, Indonesia’s largest island. That is on the opposite side of Malaysia from the plane’s intended path to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur.
Aviation specialists investigating last week’s loss of Flight 370 say evidence gathered so far suggests the plane veered off its route and traveled west over Malaysia, beyond the detection limits of the country’s radars, according to two people who asked not to be identified because the probe is active.
With no evidence of a mechanical failure or pilot error, U.S. investigators are treating the disappearance as a case of air piracy, though it remains unclear by whom, one person said. The investigation still hasn’t located where the plane may be, the person said.
The comments add a new note of mystery to the March 8 disappearance of the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. plane carrying 239 people. Data compiled so far show no evidence of a crash near the Malaysian peninsula, the people said. The airline has no information on this, a spokeswoman at Malaysian Air said, declining to be identified.
“I can’t think of a single example of a large airplane completely disappearing without seemingly leaving a trace for this many days,” said Hans Weber, president of Tecop International Inc., a San Diego-based consultant.
Radar signals sent from the ground continued to reflect back from the Boeing Co. (BA) 777-200 after its transponder went dead as the aircraft headed north from Malaysia toward Vietnam, said the people. After the transponder shut off, making it harder to follow on radar, the plane turned left toward the west instead of continuing on its path.
India’s navy is searching primarily in waters just north of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, “but we are also searching the Andaman and Nicobar island areas north to south tomorrow,” said Harmit Singh, a navy spokesman in the Andaman Nicobar region. “Some areas to the west of Andaman and Nicobar are also being planned. The areas of search are being given by Malaysia.”
The search area has a northern edge 270 nautical miles from Port Blair and a western edge 70 nautical miles from Campbell Bay, said D.K. Sharma, an Indian Navy spokesman.
A senior U.S. government official and Malaysia’s acting transport minister today contradicted earlier statements by some U.S. officials that an automatic system that sends data about the health of the plane’s engines may have continued to function after the transponder went dead.
News reports that the aircraft may have continued flying for four or five hours after the last transmission are inaccurate, Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said in Kuala Lumpur, while saying U.S. investigators believed there were “reasonable grounds” for Malaysian authorities to search on the west side of the country. That area is hundreds of miles off the flight’s intended route.
Hishammuddin, saying he was citing officials from Boeing and engine maker Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc, said the last transmission of engine performance data was at 1:07 a.m. local time March 8. Malaysian authorities previously said the plane disappeared from the country’s radar at 1:30 a.m.
U.S. investigators have been studying a radar blip detected hundreds of miles west of the plane’s intended route, in the area of the Malacca Strait, about 2:15 a.m. local time. That was 45 minutes after contact was lost with the jet flying to Beijing through the Gulf of Thailand.
The 777 had enough fuel to fly the 2,700 miles (4,345 kilometers) to Beijing and reserves to fly to a diversion airport. That meant it was capable of flying at least 2,000 miles after it changed course, enough to reach numerous points in the Indian Ocean.
Malaysia isn’t cutting back on the search, and instead has intensified its efforts, Hishammuddin said.
“Malaysia has nothing to hide,” he said. “We have spared no expense and no effort.”
The aircraft’s transponder normally sends signals to ground radar stations making it easier to follow and providing other information, such as its identity and altitude. While it’s possible for the unit to malfunction or be accidentally switched off, it is highly suspicious for the device to fail at the same time a plane makes an abrupt change of course.
Planes and ships from a dozen countries scouring land and sea on both sides of Peninsular Malaysia have yielded few answers on what caused Flight 370 to disappear.
Vietnam sent a plane to verify Chinese satellite images that appeared to show three floating objects, only to find nothing there. Hishammuddin said today that Chinese officials have notified Malaysia that the satellite images were “released by mistake” and weren’t related to Flight 370.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is supporting the Department of Defense to find the missing aircraft, said spokesman Donald Kerr in an e-mailed statement. The Defense Department is following up on all leads on the potential path of the aircraft, and is assisting U.S. Pacific Command in their wide area search for debris fields.
The U.S. Navy is moving the destroyer USS Kidd from the Gulf of Thailand to the Strait of Malacca to help in the search, Commander William Marks, a spokesman for the Navy’s Seventh Fleet, said in an e-mail.
It also will move a P-8A Poseidon aircraft into the area on March 15 to rotate with a P-3C Orion craft that has been involved in the search, he said.
Boeing said it already has investigators on site to assist the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. These teams would probably include 777 structures experts who can quickly identify crucial aircraft components, said John Purvis, a retired accident investigator who headed Boeing’s investigations unit for much of the 1980s and 1990s.